Old West Adirondacks
July 19, 2019
By Pat Gormley
Historian and Author
As an English teacher, I am often given the books of people who don’t want to keep them but feel too guilty to toss them in the trash. A few of the books I’ve adopted over the years may be worth a few bucks to an antique book dealer; most of them have lost value from the original selling price but add a bit of culture to my living room bookcase.
Recently, I opened a box of books from storage and found an orphaned Adirondack Travel Guide from 1967 (the year I was born). The 350 pages of descriptions, advertisements, and brightly colored photographs tell a story of the Adirondack tourist economy from 50 years ago, and also stirred more than a few childhood reveries.
Like many people in my age bracket, I grew up with the television on. The western genre of TV shows “Gunsmoke” (1955-75) and “Bonanza” (1959-73) were among my favorites. I would also catch reruns of “The Rifleman” and “Have Gun - Will Travel.’’ (Both series ended in 1963.) Legendary actors such as Roy Rogers, James Arness, Chuck Connors, and even Clint Eastwood in the series “Rawhide,” played the strong, principled heroes in the lawless West. Heroines were not barred from the western genre; Gail Davis played Annie Oakley in a show by the same name that ran from 1954-57. It is likely the popularity of the western-themed radio and television shows (and motion pictures) influenced the creators of Storytown, U.S.A. (now Six Flags Great Escape) and Frontier Town to bring a wild west flavor to the Adirondacks.
As a boy, I watched the drama unfold on the TV screen, anticipating the summer day my parents would take the family to Storytown U.S.A., and more specifically to the “Ghost Town.’’ According the Adirondack Travel Guide, there would be “shoot-it-out action, bank hold-ups, and jail-breaks” — all fodder for a young boy’s imagination. In 1957, Storytown’s founder, Charles R. Wood added “Ghost Town’’ to the existing park located on a five-acre parcel on U.S. Route 9 in the town of Queensbury.
To travel back in time, patrons boarded the Ghost Town Train through the dark, cool tunnel of Mystery Mountain. Moments later, we emerged into the bright sun and dusty streets of the Old West. (The company that built the ride also constructed rides at Disneyland.) As crowds gathered, Marshal Wild Windy Bill McKay welcomed the parents and young “deputies.’’ On the rooftop behind the charismatic lawman, bank robbers toting six-shooters and bags of cash appeared, and the show began. Marshall McKay, whose real name was Daniel F. Claps, retired from Storytown, U.S.A., (renamed The Great Escape) in 2007 after 50 years of deputizing and thrilling audiences. Mr. Claps passed away in 2011 at the age of 90.
Forty-five miles to the north, another western-themed amusement park called “Frontier Town” opened its iconic wooden gates to the public in 1951. The park, located off Exit 29 of the Northway (I-87), was designed and built by Arthur L. Bensen from Staten Island. Like Charles Wood, Bensen recognized the potential for wild west attractions in the Adirondacks. He speculated that the park’s proximity to the highway and to the touristy Schroon Lake area would make it a viable business. Bensen’s venture paid off, and soon Frontier Town became a tourist destination.
According to the Adirondack Travel Guide, “there are authentic stage coaches on which the daring may venture forth to Prairie Junction. The trip, via dangerous Dry Gulch Trail, is beset with hazards.” As if this description wasn’t enticing enough, there is also mention of “Indian” attacks and bandits who ride into town “shooting, looting, and causing general havoc.” Old footage of Frontier Town from the Internet features Native Americans dressed like Plains Indians doing a war dance and a “dead” gunfighter slung over a horse on the way to the “Boot Hill” graveyard. A popular attraction was “duck the varmints.’’ For this show, an outlaw was strapped to a “ducking stool” and immersed in water repeatedly as a humiliating punishment for his crimes -- a practice that dates back to 13th century England.
How vacations (and social norms) have changed since the 1960s!
Frontier Town also offered an assortment of nonviolent attractions such as trick-riding, rodeo events, stagecoach and train rides, and musical shows. In the 1960s, a restaurant and motel were built on the property and patrons could even rent a traditional teepee for the night. The Travel Guide boasts that the park is “one of the largest, as well as the original of the historic action exhibits and is today (1967) one of our Nation’s foremost attractions.”
Frontier Town was a popular tourist destination for almost five decades until its gradual decline began in the mid-80s with the waning public interest in the western genre and competition from larger amusement parks. The park finally shut down in 1998, and over the last 20 years, the buildings have been vandalized and the land overgrown. In essence, the abandoned property became a ghost town--and not the kind that drew tourists from hundreds of miles around. It became yet another symbol of the fickle Adirondack economy.
People in the real American frontier towns were forced to take risks, and in 2017, New York State did just that. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the plan to turn the former Frontier Town into the new “Gateway to the Adirondacks”. The facility opened on June 28, 2019 and features over 90 campsites, hiking and horseback riding trails, a playground, and two pavilions. The location also offers access to Boreas Ponds and the Essex Lakes Chain. To date, more than $25 million in state and private funds has gone into the project.
ââââââIn a statement Gov. Cuomo said, “Generations of New Yorkers remember the Frontier Town theme park as the place their childhood dreams became real, and now with the restoration of this campground, new generations of New Yorkers will get to experience some of that same excitement.”
Sometimes the places we loved as children remain standing in one form or another. Sometimes they disappear. And sometimes they are rebuilt. Storytown U.S.A. and Frontier Town were born in the respective imaginations of two businessmen-dreamers. Charlie Wood and Art Bensen recreated the romanticism of the Old West in the Adirondacks for almost a century combined, and thousands of former deputies owe them our thanks.
De Porte, David, ed. Adirondack Travel Guide, Adirondack and Northway Publishing Co., Albany, NY, 1967.